When life gives you a lemon…


Car dented bumperHere, Cathryn Goble will guide you through the used car game. The most important things to keep in mind when buying a used car are where to buy, how much to pay and how to avoid getting swindled.


The seller could be a licensed car dealer or an individual.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both.  One of the advantages to buying from a dealer is that they may offer a warranty.  Look for a sticker on the window that states, “As is no warranty” or “As is limited warranty.”  If a car is a recent model year with low mileage, it may still have a manufacturer’s warranty.  Also, many car manufacturers, including Cadillac, Honda and Toyota, have offered certified used cars that have been through an inspection by the dealership; these also may come with a warranty.  Certified used cars are usually good vehicles with a long life ahead of them.  Also, many dealerships offer warranties that you can purchase.

Another option is to buy from an individual.  This can literally save you thousands of dollars as dealers add markups to cover dealer fees and taxes.  Keep in mind, a dealership is a business and their goal is to make as much money out of you as possible.  If you buy from an individual, you do not have to worry about markups or sales tax.  The price you settle on is the exact amount you pay.

How much

Know the Kelley Blue Book value of your car before you try to negotiate price.  These books can be purchased, but it’s easier and cheaper to visit www.kbb.com.  Enter the specifications of the car, including make, model, year, transmission, condition, mileage, etc., to get the trade-in value, private party value and suggested retail value of the car.  The trade-in value is the amount a car dealer should give someone trading in the car towards purchase of a new one.  The private party value is the car’s value when sold by an individual.  The suggested retail value is the amount you can expect to pay a dealer for the car.  The closer you can get to the trade in value instead of the suggested retail price, the better deal you have received

Avoid rip-offs

If you are buying from an individual ask them if you can pay your mechanic to take a look at it.  Do not trust their mechanic.  These checks cost about $100, but it’s worth it.  If you are buying from a dealer ask to see the inspection report from when they purchased the car.

Have the mechanic do a routine anti-lemon check.  Also, ask about alignment; if a car was in accident and was less than 25% damaged the incident doesn’t have to be reported, but it could still throw the car out of alignment.  Also, be wary of rolled back odometers.   Have your mechanic compare mileage on the odometer to the amount of wear and tear in the engine.  Fortunately, erasing miles isn’t as easy as it used to be, especially on autos with electronic odometers where the computer for the whole car would have to be reset.

Also, use the VIN.  Vehicle identification numbers are the equivalent of a social security number for a car.  If buying from an individual ask them where they have had the car serviced, write down the VIN number and go to the shop to see if they can pull up files and tell you what has been done to the car including serious engine problems and bodywork.  Most dealers also provide this info.  Note: this is new technology so not everyone has it yet, and if a car has been worked on in another state things get tricky.

Be on your guard against altered VIN numbers.  Do your homework so you can compare the VIN to the car to see if they match.  (See box.) Your VIN should either be written on a small plate or carved into the car in several places including on the driver’s side of the dashboard just inside the windshield, on the underside of the hood, on the frame of the car around the engine, on the underside of the trunk lid, inside the driver’s door around knee level and under or inside the fender.  Locate the various places that the VIN is written and compare them to make sure they are the same. Pay particular attention to places where the VIN is carved into the car and look for welding marks.  Also, ask a mechanic or someone who knows about the type of car to check the VINs.  If the VIN plates have been changed, an expert may be able to spot wear in plates or incorrect rivets.  VINs became standard in 1978.



It’s also possible to tell if a VIN has been tampered with using ultra-violet light.  Some police departments, insurance companies and dealerships have ultra-violet VIN verifiers.  Or you could order your own at http://www.vinpro.com/vin_2.shtml.

Read the VIN

  1. The first character in the VIN represents the country of origin or the final point of assembly. For instance: 1=U.S.A., 2=Canada, 3=Mexico, J=Japan, W=Germany.
  2. The character positioned second identifies the manufacturer.  A=Audi, B=BMW, N=Nissan.
  3. Position three identifies vehicle make.
  4. Positions four through eight are unique vehicle attributes such as the body type, transmission, steering, etc.
  5. Position nine is the check digit; numbers 0 – 9 or the letter X.
  6. Position ten is the model year. This position is a letter from B-X, excluding I, O and Q. B is 1981, C is 1982 and so on.  So, if someone claims his vehicle is a 1999, you can verify by checking to see that the tenth character is the letter W.
  7. Position eleven tells the location of assembly.  For example, 9 stands for Detroit.
  8. Positions twelve through seventeen are the production sequence numbers. Each manufacturer uses the last six characters differently.


AnalogX VIN View is a free online VIN decoder. Just key in the VIN of the vehicle you wish to check. VIN View supports decoding of any vehicle identification number that was issued after 1978, which is when ISO 3779 was established to create a uniform way to track vehicles. www.analogx.com/contents/vinview.htm